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Posted: 5:05 PM- LAS VEGAS - Now is the time to put on your glasses.
Once known as a headache-inducing screen gimmick of the 1950s, 3D is roaring back into movie theaters - thanks to new digital-cinema technology and Hollywood studios eager to exploit the format.
"It's a force that cannot be ignored," actor Brendan Fraser told reporters during ShoWest, the convention of movie-theater operators earlier this month in Las Vegas.
Fraser was promoting his summer movie, "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D," an update of the Jules Verne story that bills itself as the first-ever live-action film shot in digital 3D.
Fraser said his movie is "really kind of a beta of where cinema is headed."
The new interest in 3D mirrors what prompted the first 3D boom in the 1950s, said Michael Lewis, chairman and CEO of RealD, one of the leading makers of 3D theater technology.
"It's a way to bring people back to the cinema," Lewis said. "With all the other offerings out there in the entertainment area, to have something unique is really important."
The 3D wave is only possible because more theaters nationwide are installing digital projectors.
Back in the '50s, 3D images were difficult to see "because the film would rattle and shake and it wasn't a rock-steady image," said Joshua Gershman, spokesman for Dolby Laboratories, which makes a rival 3D projection system to RealD.
"Today, with digital cinema, you can do that through one projector, and you can align them exactly so that you get a better picture quality for 3D," Gershman said. "Really, digital cinema is the emerging platform that's allowing for 3D to become relevant again."
About one out of nine theaters in America - 4,600 out of 38,794 theaters - are equipped with digital projectors, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Efforts are under way, though, to start digital conversion on another 22,000 screens by the end of this year.
And 3D is "certainly kick-starting" the digital-cinema conversion, said Dorina Belu, a spokeswoman for the projector manufacturer Christie.
"We feel that 3D technology is an impetus to bringing digital technology to theaters," Belu said. "There's that much more reason to buy digital."
Hollywood studios "love digital cinema because it's cheap," said Hannah Cash, account manager for Qube Cinema, which makes software and hardware for digital projectors. Creating a movie's "digital cinema master" (the computer equivalent of a master print) and downloading an encrypted file to thousands of theaters, Cash said, can be done for around $20,000 - or the cost of striking three prints of a movie on film.
Most of those savings go back to the studios, RealD's Lewis said. With 3D, theaters can charge a premium ticket price - in some cases, $2 per ticket for the plastic glasses, though tickets for the successful "Hannah Montana" concert movie went for $15 apiece - and make more money for themselves.
Hollywood is signing on for more 3D projects. At ShoWest, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg unveiled a preview of "Monsters vs. Aliens," a 3D computer-animated adventure due in theaters in 2009. Fraser was in Las Vegas to debut "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D," which opens nationwide July 11. And Summit Entertainment gave ShoWest attendees a glimpse of its computer-animated film "Fly Me to the Moon," which will hit theaters August 8.
Disney will release the 3D computer-animated "Bolt" this fall. In 2009, Fox has the third "Ice Age" movie, Disney will be releasing Robert Zemeckis' version of "A Christmas Carol" and a reworked 3D version of Pixar's "Toy Story." But the 3D title that has most movie geeks salivating is the science-fiction drama "Avatar," director James Cameron's first feature since "Titanic."
And the 3D possibilities don't stop with movies. RealD has explored the idea of broadcasting sporting events in 3D into theaters, screening the 2007 NBA All-Star Game into two makeshift theaters at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay hotel. Exhibitors at ShoWest talked about the possibilities of using the digital format, and possibly 3D, to broadcast satellite feeds of live events.